When Mia Berrin was a teenager in Florida, Nada Surf’s “Popular” was one of her favorite music videos. The 1996 alt-rock hit’s sarcastic perspective spoke to her, as did its subtly subversive gender politics, and seeing it all played out was exciting.
“It was around the time I was starting to get fascinated with the cheerleader aesthetic and that character,” Berrin, 24, tells Rolling Stone. “Seeing that in this song, and this funny heteronormative high-school video, was inspiring.”
Today, Berrin writes, sings, and plays guitar in Pom Pom Squad, who made one of 2021’s most impressive debuts with Death of a Cheerleader — a high-concept album about femininity and performance that’s also full of unbelievably catchy pop-punk hooks. This spring, as a joke, she put a thought out into the universe about the music video that helped set it all in motion for her. “I tweeted, ‘I’m gonna recreate the video for “Popular” by Nada Surf but I’m gonna play every character,’” she recalls. “Then I had to finish the joke.”
The result is a shot-for-shot remake of the “Popular” video — which, yes, features Berrin in every main role, from the cheerleader to the football star to the teacher dishing out dubious advice like “Being attractive is the most important thing there is” — and a new cover of the song with Nada Surf’s Matthew Caws on backing vocals.
Pom Pom Squad and Nada Surf share a European label, City Slang, and this fall the two bands got to know each other when they toured the U.S. together. “Mia is an incredible writer,” Caws says in an email to Rolling Stone. “She manages to underline the contradictions in her characters’ emotions and feelings all while preserving their dignity… As a band, aside from being sonically exciting, they have a kind of elegance that is really impressive for how young they are: There are no wasted notes, and everything works.”
After Pom Pom Squad’s opening set on that tour, Berrin would often reappear to help close out the headliners’ set by singing “Popular” with them. Offstage, she and Caws talked about the sometimes-missed subtext of the quarter-century-old hit, whose rules for popularity were taken from a Sixties etiquette handbook for teens. “Matthew is exploring how ridiculous that language is,” Berrin says. “I love how he twists it. Just by saying it, he exposes how ridiculous it is…. The video speaks to that in a way, with this hypermasculine, hyperfeminine gender performance that’s almost like a kind of drag.”
Berrin puts her own basement-queen spin on Pom Pom Squad’s cover, which she recorded with her bandmates Alex Mercuri on lead and bass guitar and Shelby Keller on drums. (“It’s a great cover,” Caws adds. “It was really cool to hear all these layers of adventurous harmony that Mia added to the chorus, which added a lot of psychological complexity to the song.”)
For the video, Pom Pom Squad returned to the same high school in Bayonne, New Jersey, where the 1996 clip was filmed, enlisting some current students to play the other football players and cheerleaders. “I asked them, ‘Did you watch the original video?’” Berrin says. “One of them said she did. I asked what she thought. She said, ‘It was cool, actually!’”
Remaking “Popular” felt like a fitting way for Berrin to celebrate everything she’s done in the past year, from releasing a full-length debut to touring for the first time — and to close that chapter with an exclamation point. “I decided in the moment that it’s going to be the last video we ever do on a football field,” she says. “It’s kind of funny: I didn’t really see Death of a Cheerleader as being about high school at all. The cheerleader is a metaphor for a larger emotional theme about how I’ve been performing gender my entire life and learning to break out of that through a love story. This is the most literal interpretation of the high-school football player/cheerleader aesthetic that we’ve ever done. So it feels like a nice sendoff.”
In the first few months of 2022, Pom Pom Squad will be opening for Illuminati Hotties (whose Sarah Tudzin produced Death of a Cheerleader), followed by their first headlining tour in the spring. “That’s kind of insane to me and not something I expected to be doing so soon,” Berrin says. “I want to make sure that we have the best show that we possibly can, and bring the more fantastical elements of the recorded music and visuals into a realized experience. I’m very excited by that challenge.”